Perhaps the 2012 season was a mirage.
Perhaps a few of those narrow triumphs in Ohio State’s march to perfection were too close to suggest a return to excellence. Because of a bowl ban, Ohio State played for pride with minimal pressure – so there was nothing to lose, right?
Perhaps playing only three teams that finished in the Top 25 was more favorable than revealing. Or, maybe, Ohio State was as good as advertised.
On Saturday, when the University at Buffalo visits Ohio Stadium in a season opener for both teams, No. 2 Ohio State begins its pursuit to demonstrate that last season was more than mere good fortune; that second-year coach Urban Meyer can mold a championship team, just as he did at Utah in the Mountain West and Florida in the SEC.
“Obviously we weren’t playing for postseason aspirations but we had a great group of seniors where we owed it to them to come out every week and win every game we could for them,” Ohio State left tackle Jack Mewhort said. “That was a big motivator for us last year.”
At one time, this program settled for beating Michigan and playing in the Rose Bowl but that was before Jim Tressel arrived and won a national championship in 2003. Now the Buckeyes are expected to contend for a national crown each autumn. Those expectations grew the moment Meyer arrived. They grew even more when OSU finished 12-0.
“This team has high expectations riding off the coattails of what those kids did last year,” Meyer said. “It’s very simple: If we get tremendous leadership from our coaching staff, and most important our players, then we’ll have success. I feel very strongly about this group having a successful season.”
It is a hunt threatened by personnel losses and disciplinary issues. Meyer was roundly criticized nationally for numerous player transgressions at Florida and his reputation took another hit with an alleged cover-up with former Gator Aaron Hernandez. Rolling Stone magazine reported that Meyer “may have covered up failed drug tests along with two violent incidents,” including a drive-by shooting outside a bar. Meyer, who denied the report, admits the criticism bothers him and walking away from players is “very, very difficult to do.”
“I’m a human so it does, I don’t read or get involved with following stuff because I think people need to get facts before they start just making accusations and those kind of things,” Meyer said. “But I’m human and I think that is something that I’m constantly evaluating and making sure we are doing the right thing. At the end of the day you have to feel in your heart that you are doing the right thing.”
Cornerback Bradley Roby and tailback Rod Smith will not play against UB while serving one-game suspensions. Roby was suspended because of his arrest in July on misdemeanor charges of assaulting a bar bouncer, while Smith was punished for a violation of team rules during the offseason.
Meanwhile, tailback Carlos Hyde is serving a three-game suspension for his connection in an assault case in July. Although charges in Hyde’s case were dropped, the suspension of the team’s second-leading rusher is indicative of Meyer becoming firm with discipline.
“I want to make sure our punishment is hard or harder than any discipline that’s out there,” Meyer said. “That’s where maybe I’ve changed over the years. Even if it’s a first-time offense from a freshman, I want to make sure we’re setting the tone.”
On the field, Ohio State lost its front four on defense. But they return junior linebacker Ryan Shazier, who has 115 stops, second most in the Big Ten, and he’s not even the most valuable defender. That could be Roby, a lockdown defender who will join the pantheon of great Ohio State corners alongside Antoine Winfield, Nate Clements, Shawn Springs and Malcolm Jenkins. Shazier and Roby should be first-round picks next spring.
Roby leads a secondary that includes senior safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. The success of any champion rests on the defense and the Buckeyes surrendered 22.8 points a game, 31st nationally. Alabama and Notre Dame, who met for the national title last season, finished One and Two in scoring defense.
Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller, a junior quarterback, has emerged as a leader after producing 28 touchdowns a year ago. According to his teammates, he’s become more polished in the pocket. Meyer said the offensive line is the heart and soul of the team.
Meyer, who helped bring the spread offense into vogue, will play more jumbo packages with tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett. Both are capable pass catchers. There will be more diamond packages defensively (with six defensive backs), with the hope of containing teams that run the spread.
If any team is capable of catching Alabama, it’s Ohio State.
“The question is, because of high expectations, that they think they have got some of the answers,” Meyer said. “I would be disappointed in our staff if that happened, because that’s what practice is for. … I don’t think we have that problem. I really don’t. First of all, we are not that good yet. I’ll tell you if I believe we are, and we’re not. We have a long way to go, especially on certain areas.”